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The product management advantage in government

The product management advantage in government
Nov 7, 2022

Adopting a fluid approach to application modernization inspires timely, thoughtful human-centered solutions to complex problems.

Agility has long been associated with high-performance sports and, not surprisingly, it is one of the main reasons why professional athletes, including football and hockey players, often enroll in ballet lessons. Ballet dancers can pivot easily, move more quickly, and change direction faster—a sought-after quality considered valuable as an art form but also vital in the competitive sports world. By allowing humans to better adapt to changing conditions, increased agility results in winning outcomes.

In the private sector, dozens of major brands have already adopted agile practices, and as more organizations and federal agencies join them, many are wondering what value agile methodologies might offer, especially in product management.

Although project management and product management are sometimes referred to as the same thing, these terms speak to different functions with their own specific objectives that require unique skillsets—similar to the difference between sales and marketing. While product management oversees the strategic development of products through the entire life cycle, project management focuses on implementing already existing and approved plans.

But what if you don’t produce a product? Perhaps you deliver essential services or manage program data or oversee training and technical assistance for a federal agency—what does product management mean then?

Benefits of adopting product management as an organizational approach

Product management is here to stay. Why? Because it works well in the private sector and it’s easy to continually iterate as required. Ever changing needs? No problem. Your product (aka application) can be ever changing to meet those demands. When it comes to agile software development, product management is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Traditionally, in the past, large public sector applications were built start to finish before they were launched with very little end user needs taken into account but, with product management practices slowly being adopted, applications and systems have significantly improved and become far more engaging. Although agile product management is still in its infancy state within the public sector, it’s more popular now, post-pandemic, as government leaders realize its potential.

As an alternative to the industrial command-and-control model, product management is more holistic, human-centered, and strategic. Instead of doing work for the sake of work, it creates value, guided by its core principles that are primarily focused on achieving optimal results that work well for humans.

When agile methodologies are paired with digital modernization, the resulting IT solutions typically deliver a human-centered design that creates happier users and provides better data insights for decision-making. And, despite the twists and turns that may occur along the development journey, the cost is typically less compared to developing a large-scale solution only to discover at the end of development that it doesn’t meet user needs or deliver the outcomes that organizations had hoped for.

Adding product management to agile delivery allows space and planning for vision, objectives, and a clear understanding of users that can steer changes. It ensures a holistic balanced product without losing sight of key targets. Batches of work become contextualized in a new way, which ensures stakeholders and team members all understand objectives and stay aligned with goals. The result? Improved quality and thoughtfulness that is baked into the work—even while doing small iteration cycles.

Applying product management to the federal agency context

Highly structured organizations, such as federal agencies, may not seem like an intuitive first choice for a product management approach. But the last few years have been punctuated by abrupt change, often responding to factors that were unforeseen or low on the risk assessment scale but high in impact. With its distinctive advantages, the product management approach can be an appropriate and progressive option that ensures objectives and expectations are successfully met.

At ICF, we dedicate our time and energy to help federal customers learn about agile software development and product management, ensuring that we communicate every step of the way, so that our partners understand exactly what the roles and responsibilities are of all stakeholders involved.

Our intention is to empower government to become full-fledged product managers, equipped to oversee the evolution of the application/product long after we are there to support it. In that way, they can continue to deliver great outcomes to their customers while staying focused on mission success. In short, we want to leave a government contract better than we found it.

As a case example, using product management methodologies, ICF was able to modernize the legacy data collection system of the Office of Child Care (OCC) and revamp a vital tool—its technical assistance tracker (TAT)—by leveraging technology, change management, and best practices for training and technical assistance.

Built in 2012, the TAT system had outgrown its usefulness after users found it irrelevant and increasingly difficult to navigate. Given these barriers, users tended to avoid the tool altogether, which led to inconsistent processes, data collection, and reporting. Government requirements for security and digital compliance had also changed over time, meaning a rebuild of the old TAT system was required.

With digital modernization, it’s not enough to simply replace or rebuild outdated technology, and there is often resistance to change. We began by forming an interdisciplinary team consisting of relevant subject matter experts who wanted to look at the problem from the outside in. The next step was to conduct research into TAT’s pain points and gaps as well as the overall user needs for the new system. This research allowed us to form user stories, concepts, and design guidelines that could describe key elements to government stakeholders.

Utilizing our understanding of the old user experience combined with development expertise across multiple technologies and platforms, we implemented a ServiceNow-based solution that provided greater flexibility, launch speed, enhanced reporting capabilities, migration of existing data, and an ideal cost profile.

The new TAT system was designed to be more compliant, integration-capable, require less technical maintenance, and better serve user needs by saving people time.

Compared to conventional methods, this approach allowed different experts to work iteratively together and stay aligned as they progressed, which resulted in a solution that provided lasting value and enhanced data insights while minimizing the risk of a negative user experience.

It’s the kind of nimble pivot that a seasoned ballet dancer would be proud of.

Meet the authors
  1. Regan Bosch Checcio, Practice Lead, Digital Product

    Regan is a product strategy expert with more than a decade of experience in improving outcomes for government agencies and private clients. View bio

  2. Tahera Zamanzada, Vice President, Digital Transformation

    Digital transformation and cloud executive View bio

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